TORONTO - The last time the Vancouver Canucks came in here and rallied for a win, an angry Brian Burke traded away a third of the team the next day.
But the same result on Saturday night, even though it stretched the Maple Leafs’ losing streak to eight games, might turn out to be a significant date in the future of the club.
General manager Burke did his shake-up beforehand, calling up forward Nazem Kadri and defenceman Keith Aulie, where they were excelling wth the Toronto Marlies. Both contributed to a close game — Kadri even had a chance to win it on a 3-on-1, and neither rookie was around the soft goal through Jean-Sebastien Giguere that set up a 5-3 final.
There was more of a buzz at the Air Canada Centre, thanks in part to the exciting Canucks and a large support group in the house, but also because the Leafs led early, broke down and came back to make a game of it. There were equal parts flash and fire in lines created by Kadri’s arrival and the 6-foot-5 Aulie made a big Leaf defence stand taller.
“I think without a doubt in my mind I can play here,” said Kadri, which would be quite a feat for a team that can’t seem to develop its drafted forwards, given Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell are the only others here. “I definitely think those 14 games in the AHL helped me out. I got my feet wet with pro hockey. I think I have the skill set and I think I have the hockey IQ, too. ”
Playing the left wing on a line with Kulemin and centre Tyler Bozak. Kadri played more than 18 minutes, with one shot and was 2-for-4 when called in on the draw.
He also showed the attitude Burke wants to see throughout the team when asked about serving an AHL suspension for verbal abuse of an official when he goes back to the Marlies.
“If I go back,” Kadri quickly retorted.
With consecutive sweater numbers in the 40s, Kadri’s group looked like a line of old Leaf Stanley Cup banners. That kept a first line of Mikhail Grabovski between Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur, which supplied the Leafs’ second and third goals by the first two men. Tim Brent, Kris Versteeg and Fredrik Sjostrom drew the tough assignment of covering the Sedin twins, with Sjostrom opening the scoring, before Daniel Sedin cut into a 2-0 Leaf lead on the power play.
Aulie was on the ice, but clear of Mason Raymond’s long-range five-hole winner with 6:24 to go, and let the Leafs with three hits.
The 6-foot-5 Aulie came in the Dion Phaneuf trade the day after the last Canucks’ win and was in his first game, Kadri his second after an emergency recall from the London Knights last year. Partnered with Brett Lebda, Aulie was also in the game’s starting lineup. Burke had said he wouldn’t have made the big Phaneuf swap with Calgary without Aulie’s inclusion and after months recovering from a shoulder injury, there is promise the Flames’ trade will yield more than the new captain.
“I like getting bumped around and throwing a few hits and find when I’m doing that, I’m at my best,” said Aulie. “It’s a different learning curve here and I’m just looking forward to getting better.”
The play of the kids took coach Ron Wilson’s mind off another blown point or two and the losing streak that matches the 0-7-1 stumble from the gate that ruined last year’s playoff drive before it started. This 0-6-2 fall leaves Toronto in 27th, two points out of the NHL basement.
“Winning is a process, you cross the t’s and dot the i’s and we let this one slip away,” Wilson said. “The third period is the best we’ve played in two or three weeks. The circumstamces of the winning goal weren’t very good. We had the opportunity to get the puck deep. Jiggy was great all night, but we needed a stop there. We were pushing, but when it mattered, (Roberto) Luongo made some nice saves.
“Nazzy made three or four great plays that special people make and didn’t do anything that hurt us defensively. He had a few turnovers, but he’s trying to be creative. Keith played very well for a defenceman of his age in his first game. He skated well, moved the puck and made heads-up plays. He’s better now than in camp when we were impressed by him. He keeps moving along, just as Nazzy’s improved a huge amount defensively.”
Now to fix the other leaks.